Review by Michael Jacobson
Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern
Director: Joe Johnson
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic, Standard 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: July 27, 1999
In October of 1957, one of the most significant events in
modern history took place, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the first
man-made satellite into orbit around the earth. Though it did little more than beep, it truly launched
mankind into the modern age, and began a new chapter in the Cold War that would
come to be known as the Space Race. Suddenly,
outer space was the new frontier, and it became imperative that Americans stake
their claim in it, and fast.
In the opening shots of October
Sky, we see the citizens of the little town of Coalwood as the radio
broadcasts the news of the eventÖand how nothing changes.
Everybody goes on about their business, which for most is coal mining,
while the news of a small object called Sputnik circling overhead didnít seem
to matter all that much. A few,
like people everywhere else, did watch the sky and catch a glimpse of it as it
soared through the night at unheard of speed and unimaginable height.
But for at least one boy in the town, Homer Hickham, Jr. (Gyllenhaal),
the event is an eye opener and a life changing experience.
Suddenly, there was something else out there in his future beside the
same coal mine that his father and fatherís father so diligently worked.
There was, indeed, a whole other universe to be explored.
But itís not so easy to dream in a town that hardly ever has
dreamed. The school principal, for example, sees his job as getting
the boys ready to take up their positions in the town coal mine.
Every once in a great while, some lucky fellow might perchance to make it
out on an athletic scholarship. The
idea that Homer and three of his friends deciding they can build a rocket and
win a national science fair is ridiculous, especially considering that one of
Homerís worst subjects is math. Only
Miss Riley (Dern), their kind teacher, encourages them to study and work hard,
and believes the boys can be the first to escape the town by using their minds.
But one of the problems is Homerís dad (Cooper), one of
the mineís managers. Heís
worked his whole life in the mines, putting his life on the line time and time
again. He sees the honor in what he
does. Coal makes energy, and the
coal he mines goes into steel production. What
he does helps to build America, which to him, is here on the ground, not in
space. Heís a good man, and not
the one-dimensional ogre often associated with these kinds of films.
He loves his son, but figures the sooner the boy realizes his limitations
and accepts his life, the better.
This movie follows the underdog makes good formula, but
with an interesting twist. Rather
than athletic feats, like the Rocky movies,
this film portrays characters trying to beat the odds with brain power.
Considering this is a true story, it makes the experience of viewing the
picture all the more extraordinary. I
say it follows a formula, but it shows us a few new things in the process.
The coal mine is a fantastic, claustrophobic set for example, where men
have to stoop to walk around. Itís
dark, dusty, and you can almost feel the heat.
We see what a precarious place it is, as well, for the miners chip away
on all sides until eventually the tunnels canít support the weight of the
earth above any longer, resulting in collapse, and in many cases, serious injury
and death. Homerís fatherís
occasional coughing fits remind us of the dangers of black lung, too, which he
succumbed to later in life. Coal
mining is honorable work, but tinged with sadness, as the conditions meant many
of the men who did it never even reached middle age.
The strength of the acting is an asset to the story.
The two leads, Gyllenhaal and Cooper, anchor the emotional heart of the
movie with their convincing work. There
is real chemistry between them as father and son.
And Laura Dern brings a sunny and sweet optimism as the teacher whoís
ready to see some of her students finally break free from the bleakness of their
The best moment in the movie occurs when Homer fires off
his final rocket. Like the Sputnik
event earlier in the picture, it is a moment where everyone (at least in the
town), wherever they are and whatever they are doing, stop and see it streak
across the sky. It is one of those
beautiful moments where everything seems to be in harmony and unity, even if it
is only for a few seconds.
BONUS TRIVIA: The
movieís title is an anagram for the name of Homer Hickham Jr.ís book Rocket
This DVD features both a standard and anamorphically
enhanced widescreen presentation on the same side of the disc.
I only watched the widescreen, but it was quite good.
No grain, no compression evident, and good, clear, sharp images
throughout. The many sunny outdoor scenes are particularly good.
I think the only thing that holds it back from being reference quality is
the fact that most of the time, colors are a bit on the drab sideÖNOT the
fault of the transfer, but purposely done to create the atmosphere of a small
town with nothing but a coal mine. Which
works to the benefit of the overall effect very well, but makes this a disc you
wonít likely grab to show off your player.
The 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable, with a good musical
score, and plenty of zip from speaker to speaker as the rockets fly. The
dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the dynamic range is strong from time to
time, though the audio doesnít make much use of the .1 channel.
There is a trailer, production notes, cast and crew bios,
and a terrific ďon locationĒ special on the making of the film, that
features interviews with the real Homer Hickham, Jr.
October Sky is a real gemÖa movie that follows a tried and true formula because the real life hero followed it. Itís charming, entertaining, and well acted. The movie that shows us we can follow our dreams is no rarity. But the film that actually makes us believe that we can, is.